Catching up across cities

DECIPHer is made up of three universities (Cardiff, Bristol and Swansea), and each of the three DECIPHer teams has its own particular strengths. The cross-university partnership allows these strengths to thrive whilst providing DECIPHer staff and students with an extended pool of colleagues to work with, learn from, and collectively enthuse about public health research.

This cross-university collaboration is one of DECIPHer’s key strengths, and we have a healthy portfolio of cross-university projects. However, being spread across three different cities and two different countries has its challenges. The sheer number of staff and students we now have at DECIPHer can make it difficult for everyone to keep up with news that doesn’t make it into our newsletter or blog. Bulletins, Twitter and cross-university events have gone some way to addressing this, but there’s still a certain amount that’s missed without the everyday interactions in the office/kitchen/staff meeting.

To address this, all DECIPHer staff and students come together annually for our DECIPHer symposium, which took place recently at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff.  The format is similar to any academic conference* – researchers present their work, we discuss, we question, we even have a poster prize (well done to Kelly Morgan, who reigned victorious this year).

It's harder to catch up with colleagues over a cuppa when you're based in different cities.

It’s harder to catch up with colleagues over a cuppa when you’re based in different cities.

As well as getting an update on each others’ research, the symposium helps us remember that we’re part of a larger centre, and get to know our less local colleagues. This helps staff and students make the most of relevant connections and potential collaborators, as it means the people are more than just names and projects. This is particularly important given DECIPHer’s focus on the development of early career researchers – contacting a senior colleague can be much less daunting if you’ve met in real life.

Focusing on ECRs

A key characteristic of the DECIPHer symposium is that the day includes presentations from staff and students at all stages of their research careers and projects, not just those presenting groundbreaking new findings of huge research projects. There’s a clear focus on PhD students and other early career researchers, who play an important role at DECIPHer.

Presentations this year included three PhD students researching school-based health improvement: Danielle Christian, who’s reaching the end of her project on physical activity in schoolchildren, Hannah Littlecott, who’s coming to the end of her first year of a PhD on schools’ use of school-level health profiles, and Ruth Turley, who’s only few months into her PhD on promoting the use of health research in schools. The symposium gives the students an opportunity to present to an audience who are experts in their subject, but also supportive and full of useful questions. It also helps DECIPHer PhD researchers from different universities to learn from each other – illustrated nicely by a discussion in which two PhD students shared some of the lessons learnt so far from different stages of their research.

We also heard from research assistant James Redmore about a new Cochrane Review on interventions to prevent multiple risk behaviours in young people, Georgie MacArthur on her NIHR fellowship research on peers and alcohol use in adolescence, and Nina Jacob on her postdoctoral work on social media, suicide and self-harm. For those of us who’ve been at DECIPHer for a while, it’s a good chance to see how people’s work and careers are developing over the years.

Celebrating the good stuff

The symposium is also an opportunity for us as a centre to collectively celebrate. This year, approaching end of the first year of DECIPHer II, there was a lot to celebrate. For a start, we congratulated the five PhD students (Harriet Batista, Sarah MacDonald, Jacqueline Lee, Jo Crichton and Kelly Morgan) who passed their vivas in the weeks preceding the symposium. As Professor Rona Campbell highlighted in her presentation, we’ve also had over a hundred papers published this year, our young people’s advisory group ALPHA continues to go from strength to strength, and we’ve just received great feedback from our annual Scientific Advisory Board.

Times a-changing

For me, this year’s symposium was a very clear measure of how things have changed. I vividly remember my first DECIPHer symposium, which took place at the end of my second week at DECIPHer. Having not worked at a university or in public health before, it had the floundering, overwhelmed feeling of the first day of school – except with more coffee and experimental live-tweeting. Two years on, I was up on stage launching our new DECIPHer website, which went live recently. As someone who doesn’t often present at academic conferences, I got all the positives of proudly showing off an exciting new thing and receiving some great feedback, without any difficult questions about my methodology. Working in academia, where imposter syndrome is rife, the contrast with my first symposium served as a welcome reminder that I really do know what I’m doing!

My first symposium felt a lot like the first day of school.

Things have changed for the rest of DECIPHer too – a year into our second round of funding, Professor Rona Campbell has taken over as Director, our first cohort of PhD students are moving on to new things, flagship projects are coming to an end, and new ones are beginning. The overall message of the day was that the last year has been pretty triumphant, and our task now is to figure out how to sustain that and continue to challenge ourselves. For me, it was a good chance to reflect on how much I’ve learnt and the connections I’ve made with my colleagues, and how lucky I am to work with such an interesting bunch of people.

Thanks to Zoe MacDonald, Natalie Richards and the rest of the Cardiff DECIPHer team for organising an excellent event.

We’re already thinking about next year’s symposium and how we can work to better connect up researchers in the three centres who have common interests and/or might benefit from talking to each other. If you’ve got any suggestion, please comment below or email  

About the author: Catt Turney is Resarch and Knowledge Exchange Assistant at DECIPHer. She tweets at @CattTurney.

Photo: Lesley Show, via

* In trying to conclusively distinguish between a conference and a symposium, I think this comic provides the best available guidance.

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